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Old Saybrook's Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center opens its doors.
Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center
Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center Photo by Bob Czepiel

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What do Pure Prairie League, The Metropolitan Opera, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, actress/singer Penny Fuller, The Comedy Zone, singer/songwriter Cheryl Wheeler, the Capella Cantorum Men's Chorus and the Connecticut Ballet have in common?

This cultural mixed bag of music, dance, good conversation and fun can all be found on the upcoming schedule of the spanking new Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center.

The Center, which opens its doors Sept. 11 with an evening of country rock, courtesy of Pure Prairie League (and don't that take you back?), sits prominently on Old Saybrook, Connecticut's wide, tree-lined Main Street and is named in honor of the late actress who was also the shoreline town's most famous, yet most private resident for much of her long and accomplished life. Though she was born and raised in Hartford, summers were spent with her large family in the Old Saybrook borough of Fenwick. As she once joked about this beloved place: "We were like a Chekhov play. It was great. We always kept meaning to go to Hartford, but we never did. All summer long." And throughout her life when she was on the East Coast, most every weekend was spent in Fenwick.

The Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has a venerable history. Built in 1911 as the Old Saybrook Town Hall, it operated as a hybrid theatre/community space (Ethel Barrymore and Norma Terris played there and so, on occasion, did the local high school basketball team) until the mid-'50s, when it was turned into municipal office space. By the time of Katharine Hepburn's death in 2003, the municipal offices had relocated nearby and the town voted to restore the building to its original state: a theatre and community cultural arts center. As workers tore down dry wall they discovered, miraculously, that the proscenium, balcony and ticket booth, among other original elements, had all been kept intact. In 2005, Hepburn's family granted permission to name the theatre after her. And after seven long years of restoration and fund-raising — with all the attendant setbacks and successes that a project like this entails — the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center is now open for business. Its ultimate mission, notes executive director Chuck Still on the Center's web site, is to be a "living, breathing organism, touching lives, educating, entertaining and enlightening people all along Connecticut's shore and up and down the river valley."

To help achieve that lofty goal, the Center, which is owned by the town of Old Saybrook but operated by a non-profit Board of Trustees, has booked an eclectic schedule of performers and events and features state of the art sound and lighting systems and a huge HD movie screen hidden up above the proscenium that can be lowered to present simulcasts from the 92nd Street Y and the Metropolitan Opera or to screen movies.

The intimate, yet elegantly appointed space (250 capacity) combines permanent and movable seating, allowing the auditorium a great deal of flexibility: it can be transformed from a traditional theatre to a cabaret setting in the blink of an eye (or more accurately with the muscle of the enthusiastic staff as they remove or reposition the movable seats). The décor includes spruced up versions of the original stage, ticket booth and balcony, and large Palladian windows, some original to the building, as well an original outer brick wall, now protected by the building's extension onto the Town Green.

A covered/columned balcony looks out onto the Green where earlier this month, visitors brought beach chairs and blankets and were treated to a free concert of Broadway show tunes performed by members of the Salt Marsh Opera Company. And later in the year a small museum honoring Katharine Hepburn will be housed on the ground floor.

"The Center is unique, in my experience," notes Still on the web site, "as it was born not of a singular artistic vision or a single philanthropist's largesse, but instead of an entire town's desire to reclaim some of their history and pay tribute to its most celebrated resident."

For a closer look at what's in store at the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center, to order tickets or sign up for their mailing list, go to Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center.

Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center interior
Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center interior Photo by Bob Czepiel
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